From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Holy places in strife-torn Bethlehem are attracting few tourists

Date 20 Feb 2001 13:53:40

Note #6388 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

these days


Holy places in strife-torn Bethlehem are attracting few tourists these days

by Alexa Smith

BETHLEHEM -- Nidal Al-Korna knelt on the marble floor and leaned into the
alcove where, tradition has it, Jesus was born.

	His voice got softer as his fingers traced the Latin lettering on the
14-pointed silver star that covers the spot. He read: "Here, from the Virgin
Mary, the Lord Jesus was born.

	"Here he was born. Then he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a
manger ... here," Al-Korna said, moving a few feet to the left into a
fabric-covered grotto lit by tiny candles and framed by two thin altars used
for early Mass in one of the most famous churches in Christendom, the
Basilica of the Nativity.

	Al-Korna has told this story a thousand times. Today, he paused.

	"When you come to these steps," he told a visitor, "normally you wait two
hours. There are busloads of people. But you are here by yourself."

	Walking through a narrow passage leading from the basilica's ancient
sanctuary into the grotto, Al-Korna added: "Many others in the world want to
come here. And they work, and save their money for, maybe, 10 to 15 years.

	"But, imagine, we are ourselves, in the grotto of the nativity!"

	Not a single tour bus was stirring.

	Upstairs, directly above the grotto, a man was running a feather duster
over the richly carved cedar wood that frames the altar in the Greek
Orthodox section of the sanctuary, moving it lightly over the hanging oil
lamps and the shiny silver icons.

	Occasionally a bearded Orthodox priest walked by or stopped to stand
silently in prayer before an icon. Otherwise, there wasn't a soul around.

	In fact, Al-Korna hadn't done a tour in weeks. That's why, first, an
orthodox priest and later a Franciscan, greeted him with warm surprise.

	For five years, this Muslim guide has walked busloads of tourists through
the basilica, the two shepherd's fields nearby (one marked by a Greek
Orthodox Church, the other by a Roman Catholic one), and Rachel's Tomb, the
burial place of the wife of Jacob, one of the Hebrew patriarchs, which is
venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tour guide speaks Arabic,
English and French.

	When the call came for this tour, he hurriedly shaved, cutting himself. He
explained sheepishly: "When I don't work, there's no need to shave or dress.
I'm just sending the children to school, helping with their lessons, helping
my wife with the cleaning.

	"My wife is happy with the help," Al-Korna said with a laugh, "but she's
not happy that we don't have the income we had before."

	A shortage of money is a common problem here since the tour buses stopped
rolling into Bethlehem six months ago, after the Palestinian uprising began
with rioting in East Jerusalem and spread more violently across the West
Bank. Since then, about 400 Palestinians are dead and thousands injured. The
Israelis also have casualties -- like the soldiers killed recently in Tel
Aviv when an Arab bus driver drove into a crowd.

	It was rumored that six buses came to Manger Square, where the basilica
sits, yesterday. Two more showed up today, someone said -- by the back
roads, apparently, because the West Bank has been sealed off by Israeli
soldiers since September.

	Souvenir shops, restaurants, rental car offices, you name it, are closed
altogether or opening only a few hours a day.

	Bethlehem's director general of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities,
Bajil Ismail, told the Presbyterian News Service that 112,000 tourists
visited in September, and by November the number was down to 3,000. The
roadblocks stop some tourists, he said, while fear keeps many others from
leaving home.

	According to Ismail, the tourism ministry estimating a $50 million loss for
the entire region over the past three months -- a big chunk of that in
Bethlehem, which is a big draw for tourists. Bethlehem has 1,300 hotel
rooms, most of which have been empty since Oct. 1. "It has been a severe
blow over the past six months ... and it is going to continue for some
time," he said.  "Recovery is going to take time, even if we have calm

	The basilica's massive stone walls have survived centuries of other

	It is, in fact, the oldest continuously used church on Earth, built in the
first half of the fourth century by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and
his mother, the Empress Helena. The original building was partially
destroyed when the Samaritans revolted against Roman rule in the sixth

	The present structure, which looks like a fortress, was redesigned in the
year 530 A.D. by the Roman emperor Justinian, in the shape of a cross. That
design is most easily seen by gazing up at the beams in the rafters.

	The door to the basilica, known as the Door of Humility, is low and narrow,
requiring adults to bow down to enter for pragmatic and theological reasons.
It is said that Moslem invaders took advantage of a much wider Roman arch to
ride into the sanctuary on horseback.

	When Persians conquered Palestine in the 7th Century, this basilica was the
only church left standing. Historians believe that a mosaic on the church's
fašade, which shows three wise men in Persian garments paying homage to the
baby Jesus, is what moved the Persians to spare the building.

	"That's what makes it the oldest church in the Holy Land," Al-Korna said.
"This church has never been abandoned. It has been continuously used. It is
the second-most-important church in Christianity, (after) Holy Sepulchre in

	Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City, is revered as the site of Jesus'
burial and resurrection.

	While parts of the Bethlehem basilica are maintained separately by
Catholics and Greek and Armenian Orthodox, the main sanctuary is used for
prayers by all three communions.

	A set of wooden doors open to reveal a mosaic floor about a foot below the
existing stone one. The tiny ancient tiles are what is left of Constantine's
church. Bits of ancient mosaics, dating to 13th century, according to
Al-Korna, cling to the otherwise plain white walls. A rear wall has a
sizeable fragment from a Palm Sunday mural.

	The time-darkened faces of saints emerge from the double rows of reddish
Corinthian pillars that line the sanctuary's vault and lead to an ornate
central altar maintained by the Greek Orthodox. Two of its three giant
chandeliers were donated by Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The cedar panels are
from Lebanon, the silver icons from Greece.

	Next door, a tiny stained-glass nativity scene marks the entrance to the
Latin sanctuary, known as St. Catherine of Alexandria of Egypt, which was
built in 1881. It is in this church that the Latin Patriarch appears for
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The strikingly modern sanctuary was
renovated this year to nearly double its size to accommodate crowds expected
for the millennial celebration of Jesus' birth.

	Of course, there were no crowds this year. 

	A maze of corridors underneath the sanctuary leads to the monastic cell of
St. Jerome, the Yugoslavian priest who is said to have translated the Bible
into Latin in Bethlehem, and then through a winding series of tiny chapels.
In one ancient stone section  -- where archeologists found the bodies of
several infants -- Mass is celebrated every Dec. 28 in memory of the
slaughter of Bethlehem's baby boys by King Herod, recounted in the Gospel of
Matthew. According to the story, Herod was frightened by a prophecy of an
impending kingly birth in Bethlehem, and tried to kill potential future
competition for his throne. However, Joseph, Jesus' father, was warned in a
dream to leave Bethlehem and take the boy and his mother, Mary, to Egypt.

	It is that baby, born in the grotto beneath the sanctuary next-door, who
has brought tourists here for centuries. But the place has been spruced up
since he spent the night.

	It was the crusaders who put the marble flooring in, sometime after 1099
A.D., according to Al-Korna.

	Services of each tradition -- Greek, Latin and Armenian -- are held here
every morning, in assigned locations: the orthodox at the birth site, the
Catholics at the manger.

	The ceiling of the old cave - rocky, pock-marked and blackened -- is about
the only section not covered by rich fabric or marble.

	Back outside, Al-Korna asked about the next stop on the tour, but said a
visit to Rachel's Tomb, now heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers, was not an
option for him. He pointed ahead to a stage that sits, empty but intact,
along the wall of the basilica facing Manger Square. It was built for
Christmas choirs that never arrived.

	Asked why some of the plaza's restaurants don't even bother to open up, he
answered simply: "Too expensive."

	Looking across the bare square, he said: "With this closure, no one moves
out or in.  On this side, there's no work. Factories? There's nothing like
this. Agriculture? There's nothing like that. What Bethlehem depends on is
working with tourists."

	Reminded that a few buses entered the city earlier that day, Al-Korna said,
"Three groups. Down from 200 a day. That's nothing."

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